TAMPA — Sure, it's easy to say the Tampa Bay startup community has many miles to go before it reaps — the rewards of celebrating major companies born and raised here.
But on Tuesday morning, there was a bold theme at the gathering held inside the Tampa Bay WaVE business incubator's second location, a peek preview of what will open this summer in space along Channelside Drive:
You've come a long way, baby.
"When we started in June 2008," Tampa Bay WaVE founder and president Linda Olson told 160-plus invitees, "that ecosystem, believe me, was kind of appalling."
Nine years of sweat equity and hard lessons learned later, Tuesday's turnout brimmed with rising confidence. In the past four years alone, Olson said WaVE has supported 198 tech startups that have raised $110 million in funding and created close to 1,000 jobs. Expansion in only accelerating.
WaVE's Channelside incubator will house startups in short, six-month leases until owner Strategic Property Partners (the Jeff Vinik-Cascade Investment real estate venture) redevelops that stretch of Channelside. Until then, it's WaVE's turf.
WaVE also continues to support startups from its other downtown site on Kennedy Boulevard.
Olson outlined four goals for WaVE:
1. Expand its startup support regionally and focus more on women, veterans and minorities to diversify its help to entrepreneurs.
2. Increase the access of venture capital to area startups to keep them from starving from lack of funding or moving elsewhere just to survive. Olson cited one goal of creating a startup fund here with $100 million in its coffers by 2020.
3. Reach out to the more established Tampa Bay business community to be more supportive of area startups. Become their customers. Mentor them. Network with them, she urged.
4. Elevate the Tampa Bay startup community. "We need to believe in ourselves," Olson said. "Something special is happening here."
That last goal to inspire confidence is key to Tampa Bay's efforts to make entrepreneurs a stronger piece of its economy. To help, the WaVE is launching a membership program, Friends of Wave.
Tuesday's gathering was awash with startup chatter.
Veteran entrepreneur and loyal area mentor Chuck Papageorgiou, now on the WaVE's board of directors, told stories of how he spurned appeals by venture capitalists to move his startups away from Tampa. Robert Francis, 81, suggested retiring was overrated and spoke of his latest deal to invest in an innovative energy business in Costa Rica.
Debbie Torres, pitching her social media/marketing startup called My Area Network, said her first days as a woman among WaVE startups were lonely. "The bathroom was never busy," she said. And now? "A lot has changed," she beamed.
The WaVE, of course, is but one piece of a much broader startup mosaic in Tampa Bay. There are lots of players and pieces in motion. Hopefully, they will keep trying to talk to one another.
Contact Robert Trigaux at email@example.com. Follow @venturetampabay.